‘Purge the evil from your midst’

If there is found in your midst, in any of your towns, which the LORD your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, by transgressing His covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them . . . and if it is told you and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. Behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed to your gates . . . and you shall stone them to death. On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. {Deut 17:2-7 NAS}

A few observations on the practical effects of this law:

  1. Neither apathy nor fanaticism.  When sin is reported you must investigate (inquire thoroughly) but you must not assume the report is true (2-3 witnesses must corroborate). This effectively vitiates the “it’s none of my business” excuse while also preventing you from breaking out the torch & pitchfork.
  2. No anonymous witnesses. Witnesses were obligated to throw the first stone on execution day so your testimony better be rock solid (no pun intended). If I have to throw the first stone I doubt I’d base my testimony on hearsay or innuendo. [see Deut 19:16-19 for how the Law handled false witnesses!]
  3. No bystanders. Even if I’m not a material witness I still take part in the execution. Compulsory participation is significant in two ways. First, I pay attention because I have a personal interest in the outcome of the proceedings. Second, this setting makes your good my good–if I can help you stay free from apostasy I keep myself (and the community) free from the messy consequences. I have good reason to be my brother’s keeper.
  4. A community purge. Negatively, this law is about purging evil from the body politic. Positively, the law is about keeping evil from metastasizing. Either way the pursuit of holiness is an individual and corporate endeavor.

Christian, take note of the Law’s severity but don’t get stuck there. Sin still kills and holiness is still a group effort (1Cor 5; Heb 3:12-13; Jude 22-23).

Throwing out the (dirty) baby with the bath water [pt 3]

{What follows are key statements from Galli’s review (in bold italics) followed by my thoughts in response}

…maybe the pursuit of holiness is not so much a striving to adopt a life of habitual virtue but learning how to live a life of constant repentance. Why the false dichotomy? Galli does well to promote a life of constant repentance but he stumbles by failing to see that repentance is itself the first step in the pursuit of holiness (and its virtues). His conjecture that the pursuit of holiness may consist of repentance without habitual virtue is biblically bankrupt, requiring that we invest in a product Scripture never tries to manufacture much less sell: fruitless repentance (or is that “virtueless” repentance?). In the most fundamental sense repentance is both a turning from and a turning to (see Ezek 14:6; 18:30; Mat 3:8; Acts 26:20; 2Cor 7:10-11; Rev 2:5; 9:20) which means that repentance consists of putting off corruption and putting on righteousness (Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10). The Christian can possess a fruitless repentance no more than he can possess a fruitless faith.

…those who pursue holiness with the passion that [DeYoung] pleads for are more than “susceptible” to [judgementalism and arrogance]; they will inevitably become self-righteous. This is my personal testimony and the witness of history. When did Galli’s personal testimony become a definitive statement on the (impossible) pursuit of holiness? I must have missed that passage. No matter, consider instead that, according to Galli, church history–all 2,000 years–is the mirror image of his personal testimony: that self-righteousness is the inevitable fate for all those with the temerity to strive for holiness. A claim like this gives new meaning to “hyperbole” and I’m going to assume that Galli would strike (or at least qualify) this line of his review if he were given a re-write. However, if Galli actually subscribes to this bleak view I’d be interested in a book swap–we’re clearly not reading the same history.

Throwing out the (dirty) baby with the bath water [pt 2]

{What follows are key statements from Galli’s review (in bold italics) followed by my thoughts in response}

2) I’ve come to conclude that I, at least, cannot vigorously pursue holiness without becoming preoccupied with my progress or lack thereof. Let me preface my comments here by stating that none of this is intended as a personal indictment of Galli. “Spiritual narcissism” is a temptation common to every man. That said, I find this second statement to be perhaps the most troublesome of his remarks because faulty theology is more easily swallowed when coated in humility. And let’s face it, few claims are more humble than admitting your spiritual handicap(s).

But his humility not withstanding the question must be asked: is Galli’s advocacy of a non-intentional pursuit of holiness established on his experience or on Scripture? If God, through His Word, has commanded us to pursue holiness (see the previous post) it makes no difference whether or not we think we have the ability. Galli’s sentiment is the promotion of personal experience over the authority of Scripture. Men can’t walk on water–vigorously or otherwise–but Peter did when called to do so. Neither can a dead man walk out of his tomb but Lazarus did at Christ’s command.

As it concerns the command to be holy we’re right to admit our impotence & spiritual narcissism but if the admission isn’t followed by an asking to receive what we lack then the admission is more faithless than humble (Mat 7:7; Jn 14:12-15; Eph 1:19-20; 3:20-21). Paul tells us to work out our salvation–which includes growing in holiness–because GOD is the one who is at work in us to will and to do His good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).  Peter tells us that by God’s power we have been given all that we need for godliness, that His promises enable us to share the divine nature, and that because of His power & promises we are to make every effort to add God-like attributes to our faith (2Pet 1:3-10). In sum, it makes no difference whether or not I can pursue holiness because God has commanded me to do so and with the command comes the power to (vigorously) obey. As Augustine famously prayed “Give what you command and command what You will.”

So if God, through His promises and by His power, is working in us so that we can pursue holiness, who are we to say that we can’t? To disregard the command because of our (in)abilities is its own form of spiritual narcissism.

Throwing out the (dirty) baby with the bath water [pt 1]

In their November (Web-only) issue, Christianity Today ran a four-part, multi-author book review of The Hole in our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. I haven’t read the book but a recently renewed interest in the doctrine of sanctification drew me to check out the discussion anyway.

I expected differing levels of agreement (or disagreement) from the reviewers but I didn’t expect a rebuttal of “the self-conscious pursuit of holiness.” Mark Galli, editor of CT, opens his review by pulling the rug out from our feet when he says:

The Hole in Our Holiness is a fine book that makes a good argument that all devout Christians should read and inwardly digest. And then, as soon as possible, we should forget about it.

Why should a fine book with a good argument be forgotten as soon as possible? According to Galli it’s because a conscious pursuit of holiness will inevitably lead to despair (since we will continue to sin) or self-righteousness (since any “success” will breed pride). So striving for sanctification leads to sin unless you just don’t think about sanctification in which case you will become holy. Uh huh.

In fairness, Galli acknowledges that there “is some deliberate effort involved” in our call to holiness although he also opines “that a conscious and purposeful pursuit of holiness is about the worst way to go about [becoming holy].” We ought to be aware of the dangers that accompany a pursuit of holiness–despair and/or pride–and I don’t deny that Scripture warns against such traps. But Galli’s requisite prescription for avoiding these self-centered ills amounts to throwing out the baby with the bath water except that in this case we wouldn’t even bother to see the baby cleaned first.

What follows are key statements from Galli’s argument (in bold italics) followed by my thoughts in response:

1) The case for holiness is not hard to make, as the Bible is full of injunctions to that end. Set aside the self-defeating endeavor of admitting that “the Bible is full of injunctions” to holiness while simultaneously dissuading the reader from thinking too much about them. Galli speaks of Ephesians 1:4 and 2:10 as definitive statements on practical holiness in relation to which “every other biblical admonition to holy living seems like mere commentary.” With all due respect, such an approach is too short-sighted. Consider just four other passages:

Matthew 5:48  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
1 Thessalonians 4:3  For this is the will of God, your sanctification…
Hebrews 12:14  Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
1 Peter 1:14-16  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,  15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,  16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Galli doesn’t even reference such explicit commands. Furthermore, Galli’s  approach glosses over the fact that the Bible communicates the holiness imperative both directly and indirectly. That is, passages which never actually use the word “holiness” or “sanctification” (or their respective cognates) can nevertheless speak to the biblical concept of sanctification. An informal sampling of the New Testament yields such honorable mentions as  Acts 26:20; Rom 6:12-14; 12:1-2; 1Cor 6:20; 2Cor 3:18; 5:9; Gal 5:16ff; Eph 4:17-24; 5:1; Phil 2:12; 3:12ff; Col 1:10; 3:5ff; 1Thess 4:1; 2Thess 2:13; 1Tim 4:7-8; 2Tim 1:9; 2:19, 22; Titus 2:14; Heb 13:21; James 1:21; 2Pet 1:10; 3:11; and 1Jn 3:3.

The point is that Galli’s cursory admission of the biblical call to holiness comes across as self-serving to say the least. I suspect that a more even-handed acknowledgement of the robustness of Scripture’s call would undercut the author’s thesis from the start since the notion that two Ephesian verses adequately represent Scriptures’ expectation of Christian holiness fails to appreciate the full weight of practical holiness as a component of salvation. The biblical injunctions are too many and too varied for us to not think about the pursuit of holiness.

When the ‘excellence’ of a holy man is not peaceful

I do not say for a moment that holiness shuts out the presence of indwelling sin. No: far from it. It is the greatest misery of a holy man that he carries about with him a “body of death;”–that often when he would do good “evil is present with him”; that the old man is clogging all his movements, and, as it were, trying to draw him back at every step he takes. (Rom. vii. 21.). But it is the excellence of a holy man that he is not at peace with indwelling sin, as others are. He hates it, mourns over it, and longs to be free from its company. The work of sanctification within him is like the wall of Jerusalem–the building goes forward “even in troublous times.” (Dan. ix. 25.)

–J.C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and  Roots

Masculine Holiness

“Too long have we been waiting for one another to begin! The time for waiting is past!… Should such men as we fear? Before the whole world, aye, before the sleepy, luke-warm, faithless, namby-pamby Christian world, we will dare to trust our God,…and we will do it with His joy unspeakable singing aloud in our hearts. We will a thousand times sooner die trusting only in our God than live trusting in man. And when we come to this position the battle is already won, and the end of the glorious campaign in sight. We will have the real Holiness of God, not the sickly stuff of talk and dainty words and pretty thoughts; we will have a Masculine Holiness, one of daring faith and works for Jesus Christ. –C. T. Studd